Steven Pinker Misunderstands the Enlightenment

In the Dark About Enlightenment

by Gwydion M. Williams

A review of Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker

If we stand on the shoulders of cannibal giants, it is embarrassing.  But an embarrassment we need to face up to, to make a better future for ourselves.

And in recording past crimes, we always need to ask the question, was there a better way?

Both the European Enlightenment and the global dominance of the British Empire did things that we are now appalled by.  As indeed did the Radical Democracy that the USA championed and a minority of Britons supported: it was often imperialist and racist.  Generally hostile to equality for women.  Obsessed by removing inherited titles and gentry, but blind to inequalities of wealth.

But having been appalled, we should also ask ‘what would have happened without those brutal but effective powers?’.

For the Enlightenment, the practical alternative was the Counter-Reformation.  This successfully snuffed out the science that a more liberal version of Roman Catholicism had encouraged in the Renaissance.  It has few admirers nowadays.

With Spain defeated, the candidates for European world empires were Britain, France and the Netherlands.  The Netherlands had much the same faults and merits.  The French did not have the rigid racism that came to dominate the British and Dutch empires.  But before the Revolution they were dominated by a corrupt aristocracy.  Triumphant, they might have frozen the world at an 18th-century level of development.

A triumph for Napoleon might have made a better world.  Who knows?  But Napoleon was an autocrat and a warmonger.  He also supported the re-imposition of slavery that idealists like Robespierre had abolished.

For the 20th century, I have long since come to accept Brendan Clifford’s argument that a win for Imperial Germany with its developing Welfare State would have been better.  And that the British Empire let Hitler rise in the hope he would destroy the Soviet Union for them.  The rulers of Britain were after a much worse world, but I come from Britons who were on the right side when it counted.

I’m happy to call the European Enlightenment a necessity for our present world.  But I flatly deny that it ever intended the democracy and equality we now value.  The European Enlightenment was a very different thing from its successors: the British Empire and the Radical Democracy that Britain’s rulers were often at odds with.  It was only from the 1880s that a majority of men at the core of the Empire got the vote, and still only 60%.  White colonies got their own elected governments: non-whites did not before the First World War.  The Commonwealth was an attempt to create a democratised British Empire that might have succeeded if tried a few decades earlier. In practice it is a club for dozens of independent states.  Many of which uphold Enlightenment values, but also Democratic and Egalitarian values that were no part of the beliefs of characters like Voltaire.

If you find it baffling that Enlighteners like John Locke were comfortable investing in the Atlantic Slave Trade, you are in the dark as to what the European Enlightenment actually was.

Seeing our current Western way of life as a continuation of the values of the European Enlightenment is simply wrong.  Factually untrue, regardless of what you think ought to have existed.

Steven Pinker is good with numbers, hopeless with history.  The Better Angels of Our Nature did a good job describing how violence has declined across the centuries.  But to him those ‘Better Angels’ were all Anglos, plus the famous Enlightenment names that he supposes Anglo culture derives from.  He discounts the input from the French Revolution, Russian Revolution and even Moderate Socialism.

Pinker is one of many who fail to understand how alien the European Enlightenment was to modern values.  Wilfully ignores how far Europe and the world were transformed first by the Democratic Radicalism that pushed aside the Enlighteners.  Then by a whole series of socialist movements that needed to fight hard for things we now see as normal.

It was a messy process.  Denouncing actual history for being imperfect is easy, and also futile.  If there was one ideal social order that bad people perversely rejected, it would be fair enough.  Some of the early Radicals and Enlighteners really did believe this – but no two of them had quite the same idea of what the ‘ideal social order’ actually is.

The European Enlightenment was anti-democratic, and comfortable with inherited inequality.  Unlike later defenders of slavery, racist democrats like US Vice-President John C. Calhoun,[A] they sold Black Africans because selling poor Europeans was less convenient and less profitable.  But in as far as they could sell their own lower classes into virtual slavery, they did so.  Transportation and forced labour are well known from Australian history – but Australia was chosen only after Britain’s North American colonies successfully revolted.  Also the bulk of the society had enough connection with enslaved white people to insist that they should be free after seven years.  Sadly, they were willing for Native Americans and Black Africans to stay slaves for ever.

The Enlightenment ideal was the Enlightened Autocrat, who gave people what they would never be wise enough to choose for themselves.  And such democratic movements as existed were largely Extremist Puritans.  A few of these shared Enlightenment ideas such as more equality for women, but most felt the opposite.

The Radicals were the next wave.  A functional union was achieved in the American War of Independence.  Loosely speaking, New England was democratic and Virginia had an Enlightened Gentry indignant at being shut out of British politics.  Who were also slave-owners: but the British government had been happy to allow slavery overseas.  They continued it for decades afterwards in the Caribbean.

The European Enlightenment was heavily inspired by the rational Confucianism of Imperial China.  It was mostly against democracy, and mostly comfortable with slavery.  And in the 20th century, almost all of the ‘heavy lifting’ for the unfinished parts of the Enlightenment project has been done by socialists or communists.

Pinker, who shows no signs of deep cultural or historic knowledge, might be genuinely ignorant of some of this.  He lists both slavery and despotism as things the Enlightenment thinkers were against.[B]  Which is absurd: anyone should know that they praised and sometimes served Enlightened Despots, and that anti-slavery started later.  With the honourable exception of the 1st Marquis of Pombal, none of the Enlighteners were concerned – and after all, slavery had been widespread in their beloved Classical Greece and Rome.  Until the late 18th century, most of the protests about slavery were Christian, even though the Bible is broadly accepting of slavery and merely urges kindness to slaves.

He also fails to make clear that the Enlightenment was covertly anti-Christian.  Many of them believed in some sort of God, but definitely not the God of the Bible.

Pinker’s refusal to mention socialism is obvious dishonesty.  He doesn’t even have socialism in the index.

Classical Liberals ceased to be an effective force in the 1920s, after playing a large role in the vast European self-wounding of the First World War.  They liked the nice things that happened after 1945, but were offended by the very large role the state played, contrary to their ideals.  Supported the New Right attacking state power.  Were then astonished when the flow of nice things got disrupted.

Most of them remain astonished.  Pinker is one such, saying:

“Who could be against reason, science, humanism, or progress?… Do these ideals really need a defence?

“They absolutely do.  Since the 1960s, trust in the institutions of modernity has sunk, and the second decade of the 21st century saw the rise of populist movements that blatantly repudiate the ideals of the Enlightenment.”[C]

What I see is a small rally by the defeated within Europe and its various settler-colonies, most notably the USA.  One instance: the legalisation of male homosexuality was begun in the 1960s, and is now complete most places, including Russia with the exception of Chechnya.  The much more radical notion of social equality for gays and lesbians is advancing, and the Illiberal Democrats seem not to want to make an issue of it.  Likewise female equality, and the general availability of abortion.  Abortion is an issue only in the USA, where it was legalised by judicial trickery.  Where the public were never asked what they actually wanted.  When asked, most populations in Europe and its offshoots have opted for tolerance.

Outside Europe, it is another matter.  Where socialism has been defeated, there has mostly been a rise in ethnic hatreds and traditional religion.  Mostly Islamic, but intolerant versions of Buddhism dominate Sri Lanka and Myanmar, and intolerant Hinduism in India.  Things are better where there is a centre-right still committed to Welfare and Economic Planning, as in Japan and South Korea.

China, still confident about socialism, is a grand upholder of Enlightenment values.  I’m sure Voltaire and the others would have been enthusiasts for President Xi.  The high rate of executions would not bother them: it is all done as humanely as killings can be done, and it was crude mediaeval methods that the Enlighteners disliked.  Dying by guillotine was a big improvement on being hung, and better than executions by axe that were often slow and botched.  China shoots the more serious criminals, including rapists and drug dealers.  Rape and drug abuse are indeed less common than in similar countries.

And then there’s inequality.  Surely that’s the big thing undermining the confidence of ordinary people in the ‘Enlightened’ New World.

Pinker dodges the awkward matter of inequality generated by the New Right from the 1980s.  And indeed their careful cultivation of fear and prejudice among the general population so as to defeat left-wing parties.  This was worst in the USA, where the Republican Party skilfully attached the White Racist vote to itself, particularly in the US South which had always voted Democrat.  And where racist Democrats were also all for Welfare and State Planning, whereas their Republican replacements are against.  And before Trump with his hard-line against immigration, they gave very little to those racists.  Reduced them to baffled poverty and increasing drug abuse and suicide.

In the USA, it is literally true that the bulk of the Working Mainstream have made no progress at all since the 1970s, with a more-than-millionaire class getting almost the entire fruits of considerable economic growth.  Less drastic elsewhere, but the current cuts in social spending would not have been needed had the rich paid their fair share.  Sadly, Pinker has swallowed the New Right version of history.

Inequality in the world is indeed falling.  But that has been mostly the rise of China and India, especially China.  And China’s rise began with Mao, who tripled a Chinese economy that had seen little net growth during the years it was open to capitalism and world trade.  Pinker is one of many fooled by ‘experts’ who significantly fail ever to give hard numbers for overall economic growth under Mao.[D][E]  Nor for overall death rates or infant mortality – the supposed Famine was a death-rate of 25 per thousand at its worst, which is lower than the norm for many poor countries at the time.[F]

Pinker rejects ‘switching to socialism, or bringing back the 50s’ as cures for inequality.[G]  These are indeed the methods hated by the rich, because they actually work. The Mixed Economy borrowed a lot from socialism, even when it was not a socialist government.  And the systems of total state control created by Stalin and Mao were very successful economically.  Deng took the Mixed Economy systems of non-Communist East Asia as his model, and improved on Mao – though he was helped by free global access for cheap Chinese goods.  Khrushchev and his heirs had a different model: total state ownership but regulated by a pseudo-market under state control.[H]  It was this that failed, and has been used to smear socialism in general.

Much of the book is sensible: a good account of false fears.  But he misses the central event in recent history: the rise of the New Right and all the damage it has done.

First published in Labour Affairs, July / August 2018.

[A]              https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_C._Calhoun

[B]              Enlightenment Now, page 11

[C]              Enlightenment Now, page 29.

[D]              Enlightenment Now, page 90.

[E]              Angus Maddison’s widely-admired The World Economy: Historical Statistics shows Mao’s China growing faster than most of the rest of the world, despite the setbacks after the Great Leap Forward.

[F]              See https://gwydionwilliams.com/99-problems-magazine/mao-and-china/.  This includes life-expectancy figures from the UN database.

[G]              Enlightenment Now, page 120

[H]              https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/the-soviet-past/market-socialism-in-the-soviet-union/

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